Is Hurricane Judd finally blowing over? After a torrential downpour of Apatow-written, directed and/or produced films in the last decade (17 features and two television series), his latest, Funny People, has the sort of semi-autobiographical tinge that imbued Bob Fosse's penultimate work All That Jazz and Federico Fellini's classic exploration of writer's block, 8 1/2. Coupled with Apatow's expressed desire to slow down his rapid takeover of the comedy genre, this might be the beginnings of a more mature and methodical era for the filmmaker. Or, considering the rumored eight projects in development, he might be pulling the wool over our eyes.
In Funny People, Adam Sandler plays comedian and uber-wealthy children's film star George Simmons, who is a very sick man. Terminally so. Upon learning he has a rare blood disease with an 8 percent chance of survival, he decides to chuck the kiddie-flicks and return to the racy stand-up circuit where he got his start. After a particularly dismal showing at an L.A. club, he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), a goofy and earnest tenderfoot who he hires as a bit-writer and personal assistant. Unlike Ira's marginally successful roommates (deadpan Jason Schwartzman and deadface Jonah Hill), the wannabe funnyman is penniless, girlfriendless and not all that great in front of an audience. As Ira's relationship with George evolves from opening act and gofer to friend and confidant, the two begin to evaluate what matters most in their lives, particularly in the love department. While Ira has his eye on neighbor Daisy (a hilarious Aubrey Plaza), George reconnects with old flame and former actress Laura (Apatow's wife Leslie Mann), who shares his "what-if" sentiment despite a 10-year marriage to Clarke (Eric Bana) and two daughters (Iris and Maude Apatow).
Funny People is a long film, and much of it isn't all that funny. A lot of comedians, or indeed, funny people in general, seem to have a knee-jerk reaction when confronted with tragedy. Laugh it off, make a joke, turn the conversation in a more comfortable direction. Apatow recognizes this, and many of the film's heavier situations, whether dealing with George's illness or the admission of an affair, are shortchanged with a fistfight or an off-color joke. It's realistic, yes, and often amusing, but also isolates the characters and the audience. Unfortunately, it means we're also left with some very pat resolutions, quick and easy overtures of forgiveness and only a surface understanding of the characters. It's a good thing sex is so popular, or these people would have nothing to talk about.
The similarities in Funny People to Apatow's own life are undeniable. Like Sandler's character, Apatow got his start in stand-up before moving into filmmaking. Mann, like Laura, put the brakes on her acting career to raise the Apatow brood. And if the talk of a filmmaking hiatus is true, it mirrors George's decision to slow down his output and reevaluate his priorities.
While Funny People is neither as ambitious nor as thoughtful as a Fosse or a Fellini, it is fascinating to try to pick out the elements of Apatow's existence that made it on-screen. This is the most honest and straightforward sort of comedy he's made since the short-lived series Freaks and Geeks 10 years ago. While Funny People still has much of the raunch and awkward inappropriateness that has made Apatow's films so popular, here it's shown for what it is-- mostly talk. It'll be interesting to see what he has to say next.